WASHINGTON — President Reagan said today that "duty requires" his Administration to block release of secret documents that may be needed for the Iran-Contra trial of former aide Oliver L. North.
Reagan commented in response to reporters' questions after his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said disclosure of documents sought by North's lawyers for use in his defense would reveal "state secrets of the highest order."
"We have indicated there are categories of information included in these documents which cannot be declassified at any point," Fitzwater told reporters.
Reagan, questioned at the beginning of a meeting on trade issues in the Oval Office, said, "The things we are blocking are the things that duty requires we block."
"These are things that are national security secrets," he said. "This is something that from the very beginning we knew we would have to do."
'Law Must Take Course'
He denied that the move is an attempt to sabotage North's trial and said, "The law must take its course."
Asked whether he still believes, as he stated earlier this year, that North and former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter will ultimately be found innocent, the President said:
"At this stage, I don't think I should comment on guilt or innocence or anything of this kind."
When asked whether this means that he will not grant pardons to North and Poindexter, he replied: "From the very beginning, I said that to consider a pardon would leave them under a shadow of guilt for the rest of their lives. I think we have to let the judicial process proceed."
Fitzwater said the White House has offered a briefing to U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, who is scheduled to preside over North's trial, but has not received a response.
He said it is "up to the judge" to decide whether the classified material is relevant to North's defense and, if it is, whether the indictments against him should be dismissed or he should be tried.
"This information involves sensitive methods and sources and exceedingly sensitive programs which are state secrets of the highest order," Fitzwater said.
He said Gesell was advised of the Administration position last week when White House counsel A. B. Culvahouse wrote to independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, who is prosecuting the case, and Walsh filed a pleading with the court.
Fitzwater said the decision not to release the documents was made in July by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, CIA Director William H. Webster, National Security Adviser Colin L. Powell and Lt. Gen. William Odom, director of the National Security Agency.
The spokesman said the decision was unanimous. It was passed on to Walsh, who Fitzwater said did not object to it and indicated that he could pursue his case against North on the basis of unclassified material.
'Judgments . . . Not Political'
Later, North's attorneys said they wanted to use some of this material in his defense.
Fitzwater said the decision not to release the documents was not reviewed by Reagan.
"These judgments were made by the security agencies involved and not by the White House and . . . are not political in any fashion," he said.
Meantime today, Gesell presided for a second day at closed-door hearings on North's objections to deleting sensitive references from classified documents that Walsh wants to use as evidence.
North argues that the references to countries, foreign officials and U.S. intelligence agents are necessary to defend himself against charges that he conspired to divert more than $14 million in U.S.-Iran arms-sale profits to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.